How we can help our bodies—and our minds—deal with everyday toxins
Heidi Fritz, MA, ND
As we mark a year of living with the tension and hypervigilance imposed upon us by the deadly pathogen called SARS-CoV-2, it may be the perfect time to detoxify, both mentally and physically. The term “detoxification” refers to biological processes responsible for safely removing harmful substances from the body. This involves the coordination of several body systems, including the circulatory system, liver, intestines, kidneys, and more. Shifting our diet and lifestyle patterns, as well as providing higher amounts of certain nutrients to the body, can help enhance this process. In a whole-person approach to detoxification, we also place an emphasis on repatterning our mental processes and what we choose to feed our mind. Here are some strategies to help support this holistic approach to detoxification.
Every day, the body needs to process and eliminate many kinds of “toxins.” These may include metabolites from normal cellular functions such as CO2, lactic acid, urea, and hormones (such as estrogen). It can also include exogenous substances that we may be exposed to through our food and environment.
Different sorts of metabolites may be eliminated through different routes, such as through the lungs, the skin (via sweat), the kidneys, and the liver/gut pathway. One of the ways the body protects itself from toxins is to contain them in adipose tissue (body fat) where they accumulate inside fat cells. Weight loss and the breakdown of fat liberates these toxins and adds them to the burden of toxins to be safely eliminated.
This pathway plays a particularly important role in detoxification. The liver is the foremost site of phase I and phase II detoxification processes, which render toxic substances safe for elimination through the intestines and from the body.
Phase I enzymes, also known as the cytochrome P450 (CYP450) enzymes, convert the toxic substance by adding a reactive group through oxidation, reduction, and/or hydrolysis reactions; this renders the toxin temporarily even more reactive and potentially damaging.
Phase II enzymes conjugate these reactive intermediates by adding one of a number of water-friendly compounds. Phase II detoxification renders the toxin more water-soluble, less reactive, and ready to be excreted into the intestine via bile.
Once the liver neutralizes toxins by way of conjugation, it releases the metabolites into the bile and the gut for elimination. If bowel material is not eliminated from the body in a timely manner, these toxins can be reabsorbed into the bloodstream and recirculated throughout the body in a process called enterohepatic recycling. As well, if dysbiosis is present, bacteria producing the beta-glucuronidase enzyme may actively deconjugate toxins in the intestine, freeing them to be reabsorbed. Symptoms of overloaded detoxification pathways may include fatigue, headaches, irritability, skin rashes, and digestive problems such as bloating and constipation.
Given this two-step dynamic of elimination, the therapeutic goal is to upregulate phase II detoxification enzymes by supplying nutrients used in these processes. These might include
In addition, hepatoprotective (liver protecting) herbs and antioxidants such as milk thistle (silymarin) can help protect liver cells from the damaging effects of phase I intermediaries.
The foundation of any well-designed detoxification program includes
Highly processed foods These should be removed from the diet: refined sugars, pop, caffeine, alcohol, and fast food. Refined sugar is a common soft “addiction” in North America; symptoms of temporary withdrawal from refined sugar might include intense cravings, irritability, and fatigue.
Food intolerances If specific food intolerances such as wheat or dairy exist, they should be avoided.
Fruits and vegetables Aim for 10 servings per day of fruits and vegetables. One serving, for example, equals 1/2 cup (125 mL) cooked green vegetables such as green beans, rapini, and broccoli or 1 cup (250 mL) raw salad greens.
Fibre Along with fruits and vegetables, 2 Tbsp (30 mL) per day of extra fibre can be added using ground flaxseeds or oat fibre.
Hydration Beverages should include water and herbal teas such as green tea, peppermint tea, or ginger tea.
Exercise To promote blood and lymphatic circulation, incorporate at least 30 to 60 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity exercise daily. Additional benefits of exercising include endorphin production and decreased cravings, as well as promotion of better bowel function.
If detoxification involves the removal and cleansing of harmful substances from our bodies, then there is certainly a role for mental “detoxification” when it comes to improving our overall health.
Chronic stress, worry, and anxiety not only exert a harmful effect on our physical health but also reflect a deeper imbalance contrary to human health and flourishing. Detoxification should involve strategies to clear and declutter our minds as well.
Social media Impose a “fast” from social media—for instance, not accessing social media for 30 days, or imposing a hard, half-hour daily limit.
Nature time Spending time in nature, whether gardening, hiking, or going for a walk, is a forcible break from other stresses, promotes relaxation, and fosters an appreciation for natural beauty. Nature therapy has been found to mitigate the modern-day “stress-state” and “technostress.”
Artistic expression Expression through music and art can help us reduce anxiety, participate in beauty, and help us discover and express new meaning.
Avoiding negativity It’s important to be selective of the company we keep. Seek the company of those who leave you feeling revitalized and inspired to be better, and spend less time with those who leave you depleted and negative.
Certain natural health products may enhance the body’s detoxification process, such as probiotics, fibre, magnesium, milk thistle, n-acetylcysteine, and glutathione.
Probiotics Gut flora contribute to the breakdown and elimination of metabolites in the digestive system. In animal studies, probiotic supplementation increased bowel excretion of the hormone disruptor bisphenol-A (BPA). In lab studies, probiotic supplementation reduced enterohepatic recycling of bile salts and increased cholesterol excretion through the gut.
Magnesium Used as a gentle laxative and muscle relaxant, magnesium also helps promote regular bowel function and elimination. Be sure to check with your health care practitioner before taking a magnesium-based laxative.
Fibre Add extra fibre to your diet with ground flaxseed or oat fibre; these act as a “mop” to soak up and bind toxins in the gut for elimination.
Milk thistle (Silybum marianum) A well-researched hepatoprotective plant, milk thistle contains flavonoid antioxidants, known collectively as silymarin, that have membrane-stabilizing properties and have been shown to help reduce inflammation and regenerate liver cells exposed to toxic injury. Silybum may also have chelating effects for certain metals and has been shown to reduce iron overload.
N-acetylcysteine The precursor for glutathione, NAC is one of the most important antioxidants involved in the phase II conjugation reactions in the liver.
Glutathione Taken as a supplement, glutathione has demonstrated an ability to reduce liver enzyme alanine aminotransferase levels in patients with nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, which is a measure of its ability to halt progression of this disease.
Various other nutrients may be considered based on individual needs, including whey protein powder, shown to increase glutathione levels, and vitamin B12, folic acid, and choline, which can act as methyl donors to assist in methylation reactions.
Detoxification processes help us remove harmful substances from the body; they can be enhanced through lifestyle, as well as use of natural health products. Eating a cleaner diet, incorporating exercise, and improving gut health as a way to detox will yield important improvements in our overall health and well-being.
A 2014 study found that, over a 15-year period, the risk of death from cardiovascular disease increased in those who consumed a higher percentage of calories from added sugar in their diets (more than 25 percent) compared with those with a lower-sugar diet (less than 10 percent of calories from added sugar).